As we rounded the turn in Schenectady’s Central Park, I drank deeply of the fragrance of the new spring grass that had only recently dared to reach out its fragile fingers, grasping the golden sunlight of that late March Saturday morning. The winter had been a long one, and this, our last training run before the half-marathon, was the first without the worries of encountering snow and ice on the sidewalks.
“Almost … there,” I huffed and puffed. “Only two miles to go,” I added, breathing hard but enjoying the pace. It was faster than we had been running the past few weeks, and in my racing experience I knew that everything pointed to having a good race the following weekend.
Dan said nothing. Dan usually kept quiet during the runs; he made his statement with his feet, his legs, and not any needless verbiage. So I did most of the talking.
Truth be told, I felt more or less obliged to do the talking. After all, I was the one who had talked Dan into signing up for the half-marathon. He had run a lot of 5k’s and 10K’s in his youth. “No, Joel, I’m not going to do a half marathon,” he had emphatically stated.
“No problem,” I assured him. “Just come and train with me a little. We’ll run some 10K’s.”
And we did. We ran together at least a couple nights each week for several months and on two or three Saturday mornings. That was no small feat, considering the brutal Schenectady winter that still gives me “ice cream headaches” when I think about it. The winter had been a typical one there — not nearly as cold as the Midwest, but more snow than I had ever seen. Most of our training runs found us sloshing through snow and ice. But Dan stuck it out; he showed up to every run we had scheduled.
And after each training run, I shared my observations with Dan. He was getting stronger and faster; his endurance was increasing at an admirable rate; and finally he grudgingly agreed to run in the half marathon. “But only if you do,” he declared. I assured him I would be there right by his side.
Now, I should explain that Dan was a talented and gifted individual; he had the Midas touch. And he was confident, yet humble; a leader, yet willing to serve; and a brilliant thinker, yet encouraging others to share ideas. In fact, the only area of his life in which he wasn’t confident was his running. But honestly, his running was looking good.
The race was scheduled for the first Sunday in April, starting from the old Proctor Theater downtown. The race was set for ten o’clock, and Dan and I agreed to meet at the corner near the theater thirty minutes prior. That would give us sufficient time to warm up and get our nerves settled. It promised to be a big race. Several hundred runners — perhaps even a thousand — had signed up.
I saw Dan at lunch on the Friday before the race. “Don’t back out on me now, buddy,” I told him. “We’ve trained too hard for this. Show up or you’re dead meat.”
Dan laughed and said, “I’ll be there.”
I believed him, but something inside of me threw the faintest shadow of a hint that something might go awry.
Any doubt I had was gone by the time I opened my eyes that Sunday morning. I looked out the window — crisp sunny blue skies. It looked perfect outside.
It was eight o’clock. I had plenty of time, so I made a pot of coffee and a couple slices of toast. I didn’t want to eat anything else until after the race.
Eight twenty. I grabbed a book and sat down to read.
My eyes skimmed the pages but the words remained unread. I wasn’t thinking about the book. I was worried that Dan wouldn’t show up. Oh, it wasn’t that I minded running the race alone. I knew I could do that. I was just worried that Dan would back out, after having trained so hard. I decided to call him.
I picked up the phone and began dialing … and then I chuckled to myself and put the phone back on the hook. I didn’t need to call Dan. He was as reliable as the sun. If there was anybody on this planet who held true to his word, it was Dan. And if he wasn’t going to show up, he would have called me.
I silently breathed a sigh of relief. Eight forty-five. I hopped off the couch and began doing some light stretching. Nine o’clock. I sat back on the couch and tried to read again. I again could not focus on the words.
I leaned back and closed my eyes, visualizing my pace for the race. Back in those days, I ran often enough that I knew what it felt like to run a seven minute pace (per mile) versus a six forty-five pace versus a six thirty pace. For this half marathon, Dan and I were targeting a seven minute pace. We hoped to run the race in just a bit over one and one-half hours.
I opened my eyes. Nine fifteen. It was time for me to go.
Nine twenty-eight. I crossed the street and was standing at the corner where Dan and I had agreed to meet. He wasn’t there yet.
Nine thirty. Dan still wasn’t there. The odd thing, though, was that nobody else was there either. I knew thirty minutes might be a little early, but usually at these races the race officials were there a couple of hours in advance.
Nine thirty-five. Then nine thirty-six. Then nine thirty-seven, thirty-eight, and thirty-nine.
At nine forty, I walked to Proctor Theater, just half a block down from where I had been waiting for Dan. A custodian was sweeping the large canopied shelter in front of the theater. He nodded to me. I nodded to him.
He nodded to me again. I nodded to him again.
Then he walked toward me. I figured he was going to tell me I could not loiter in the area.
“You here for the race?” he asked.
“Yes sir,” I nodded.
He laughed. He shook his head, looked at me, and laughed.
“They done left.”
“The race. They done left already.”
“What? They started early?”
“I don’t know. All I know is ’bout an hour ago, there was a whole bunch of people here. Then somebody said get ready. And somebody said get set. And somebody fired a gun. And all them runners took off.”
“They can’t do that!” I argued. “They changed the start time for the race? I didn’t see any announcement for that. When exactly did it start?”
“Oh, I reckon it started right about ten o’clock.”
“But it’s only nine fifty now,” I said, looking at my watch.
And then the man laughed again.
And then the realization hit me.
What was it that Mom had taught me. Spring forward, fall back. And the spring forward, in those days, always landed on the first Sunday in April.
I had missed the start of the race! It was my fault! Poor Dan!
I ran back to my car. I knew what streets were on the race route, so I picked a street parallel to one long stretch of the route and drove in the direction of the race. “Let’s see … Dan will be running at this pace, so at ten o’clock — I mean eleven o’clock — he should be about … here.”
I pulled the car over to the side, ran one block over, and watched runners come by, one at a time. Sure enough, six or seven minutes later, here came Dan. I waved as he approached. He smiled. I jumped out into the group of runners and stepped into pace alongside my friend.
“Forgot … the … time change … didn’t you,” he huffed and puffed.
“Yep, sure did,” said I, not puffing or huffing. And I ran the rest of the race with him, talking and chatting all the way. And Dan let me talk. For the last four miles of the race, I apologized.
As I approached the finish line, I did the courteous thing and yelled out, “Bandit,” as I stepped aside so that I would not mess up the results.
Fortunately Dan was a forgiving guy, but he never did run another race with me after that. And I learned several lessons out of this, not the least of which was something like this: Don’t worry about the other guy. Make sure you fulfill your end first.
And don’t forget about the time change.